A diagnosis of anxiety

On one of those occasions when I peep around the screen at what my GP is typing I see a diagnosis of ‘anxiety with depression’ at the top of the screen. I’m not sure how I feel about that. I suppose I’ve always thought about my problems as being more to do with depression than anxiety. But regardless of the idiosyncrasies of the recording system that GPs use (for the uninitiated, the Reed codes used in British General Practice don’t much conform to DSM or ICD), I think it’s probably right. In my life, low mood comes and goes, while anxiety has been pretty pervasive at the times when it hasn’t progressed to frank agitation.

This all comes to mind recently because the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) just published its quality standard for anxiety disorders. It has information on all the different disorders neatly laid out- with specific pathways for Generalised Anxiety disorder, Panic disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder etc. At the same time there has been the usual and continuing debate about the validity of diagnosis in psychiatry in the twitter sphere, in which I occasionally participate.

My problem with NICE guidance is that there are so many different pathways for the different diagnostic categories of what are called Common Mental Health Disorders– which consist of all the anxiety disorders plus depression. Some mental health professionals disparaging call these ‘minor’ mental health problems and the people who suffer with them the ‘worried well’. I’ve unfortunately heard psychiatric trainees use those terms.

Warning: don’t ever use these terms in my presence, I can’t be responsible for the consequences.

If you add in the other common mental health problems in the community, use of drugs and alcohol which many use to self-medicate for these ‘minor’ problems, you have a complex bundle of guidelines for a large section of the community (around 15%) who mostly get their mental health care from primary care. In common with the main classification systems, NICE treat all these as distinct diagnoses. If only life were so simple.

The problem is that in the real world they all overlap, co-occur and change around over time much in the way that my own symptoms have done since adolescence. ‘Anxiety and depression’ is the commonest mental health problem that GPs see. Mixed in with that may be some phobic symptoms, panic attacks, obsessional symptoms along with other features which suggest post-traumatic stress such as hypervigilance. Add to this the common ‘co-morbidity’ with drugs and alcohol, and the difficulty some people with these problems additionally have in social relationships which equates to some degree of personality difficulty, we have the potential to label a person with multiple diagnoses. At the other extreme we could say, these ‘disorders’ are all part of the same problem. You are suffering from something called ‘life’.

My view is somewhere in the middle, but I struggle with it. I’m a supporter of the need for psychiatric diagnosis and anyone who doubts the need for it should first read Robert Kendell’s classic book The Role of Diagnosis in Psychiatry. But to say that doesn’t mean we’ve got it right, or that the same system is appropriate in all settings. In my work with WHO, I’ve helped towards developing the ICD-11 system for primary care, which is a good deal simpler than anything DSM can ever think up. However what is key for me is that a diagnosis is only a construct,

as Kendell puts it:

‘thoughtful clinicians are aware that diagnostic categories are simply concepts, justified only by whether they provide a useful framework for organising and explaining the complexity of clinical experience in order to provide predictions about outcome and to guide decisions about treatment.’

Clinically I have found the NICE stepped care model useful: severity of symptoms is the key to what intervention is likely to be helpful. But my approach to helping people has been to start with their life, their problems and hopes and concerns and help them to work out goals for how they would like it to be different. To work towards this by both finding out exactly what they are experiencing, and have been through, and then use a range of therapeutic tools from medication, psychological and social interventions in an essentially transdiagnostic way according to what is likely to help, both from the evidence base and their own past experience and preferences. This has been how I’ve supervised step 2 workers in Improving Access to Psychological Therapy (IAPT) in Salford where I worked for several years, to deliver care for people who might have ‘anxiety and depression’ in some kind of admixture, but had complex life problems. I’ve utilised a very simple set of ‘working’ diagnoses which can easily change over time.

I think we do underestimate the importance of anxiety, but it’s not just that we fail to recognise anxiety disorders. Anxiety pervades all of the common mental health problems except for in those people who experience depression without it. There is a significant genetic component which I can easily identify in my own family. Anxious symptoms in the presence of both bipolar and unipolar depression tend to make the outlook worse and suicide more likely.

Recently, since I gave up the day job, I’ve been feeling much less anxious. This was (unhelpfully) commented on by a colleague whom I hadn’t seen for a while who decided to mime how agitated I used to be at times. I have to admit that I was (strangely) usually worse when in his company. However this coming week I have to have more investigations for my physical health and the familiar churning stomach, sweating and tension have returned once more. Hopefully, after tomorrow, I will be able to return to the combination of exercise and mindfulness which I have recently found helpful in managing my ‘anxiety’.

Fingers crossed.

2 thoughts on “A diagnosis of anxiety

  1. Jo G says:

    I know u wrote this a while ago but I have only just discovered it! The influence of my anxiety on my depression wasn’t discovered/acknowledged for 20 years but as soon as the connection was made & treatment modified my overall mood stabilized. Sometime it’s not just ‘life’.

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